Nigerian economist and former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed to be the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Monday, making her the first African and the first woman to lead the organization that governs trade rules between countries.
Okonjo-Iweala, whose dual U.S. citizenship means she’s also the first American to hold the post, said she was honored to have been selected to lead the body and that a key priority for her when she takes on the role in the beginning of March is to work with member states to quickly address the economic and health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said in a statement.
“I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again. Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”
Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment comes months after the Trump administration refused to back her candidacy and threw its support behind South Korea Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. Yoo withdrew her candidacy on Feb. 5, and the Biden administration announced its support for Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment.
The incoming WTO director-general will face a series of challenges, including how to best manage persistent trade tensions between the U.S. and China. The international body has been criticized for failing to carry out new trade negotiations and police unfair economic behavior from China, which pushed the Trump administration to label China a currency manipulator and impose or threaten billions of dollars in tariffs on goods from the nation.
Former President Trump often criticized the WTO over the duration of his presidency, claiming the organization has been slow to act against illegal practices in China, such as intellectual property theft, and threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the economic organization.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said Okonjo-Iweala “brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister.”
“When I became finance minister they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or Trouble Woman,” Okonjo-Iweala told The Guardian in 2005. “It means: ‘I give you hell.’ But I don’t care what names they call me. I’m a fighter; I’m very focused on what I’m doing, and relentless in what I want to achieve, almost to a fault. If you get in my way you get kicked.”
In a statement, China’s commerce ministry said the country “has full confidence” in her appointment.
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